When we planned our road trip to Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park, I spent time looking up other places to hike and explore the outdoors along the way. I was surprised to find a national monument in southern Idaho that had never crossed my researching radar before – Craters of the Moon.
I wasn’t familiar with the national monument designation before we visited Muir Woods National Monument with my in-laws a couple years ago. I thought Muir Woods was a national park! It turns out there is a reason for the different designations:
The primary difference lies in the reason for preserving the land: National parks are protected due to their scenic, inspirational, education, and recreational value. National monuments have objects of historical, cultural, and/or scientific interest, so their content is quite varied. For example, national monuments protect wilderness areas (such as Muir Woods), fossil sites, military forts, ruins (such as the Gila Cliff Dwellings), and buildings (such as Ford’s Theatre, where President Lincoln was assassinated).According to Outside Online magazine
We’ve been trying to visit more national parks in recent years, but moving forward I am going to equally focus my time and attention on identifying national monuments we want to visit. Bonus: the America the Beautiful pass covers admission to both!
We arrived at Craters of the Moon early because the day was going to be scorching hot and believe it or not, there’s not much cover when you’re exploring lava fields. We stopped at the visitor center on our way in to grab a map, review the area’s history, and ask if anything was off-limits due to COVID-19. It turned out everything was accessible except for the caves, which were closed due to high bat activity.
This preserve was protected in 1924 by President Calvin Coolidge who described it as a “weird and scenic landscape, peculiar to itself.” Volcanic in origin, the craters and lava fields resulted from a series of deep fissures that cross the Snake River Plain. They began erupting 15,000 years ago and continued producing lava flows until as recently as 2,000 years ago, although experts believe they could reactivate at any time. Who knew this existed in the middle of southern Idaho?!
When you enter via the visitor center on the northern side of the preserve, you follow a loop road with several pullouts for parking and exploring. If you’re interested in simply viewing the various volcanic features from the comfort of your air conditioned vehicle, that 7-mile loop takes about 30 minutes to drive.
We skipped one of the first pullovers – Devils’ Orchard Loop, which is a .5 mile round trip walk through cinder beds – and instead visited it on our way out of the park. I would not recommend doing this. It was a nice easy loop and introduction to the park, but pretty underwhelming after everything else we experienced. I would follow the points of interest order recommended in the park brochure. It’s almost like they know what they are doing when they make these recommendations…!
Here are the highlights from our stops at the other points of interest.
North Crater Trail
Our first stop was the North Crater Flow, where you can access the North Crater flow trail as well as the North Crater trail. The former .6-mile round trip trail was temporarily closed for construction work, which was fine by us as we were more interested in the latter 3.5-mile round trip hike through the lava fields and vent to the Spatter Cones.
This was an easy/moderate hike with one rocky incline that made me happy to have the traction on my hiking boots! That said, we saw adults and kids of all activity levels and footwear on the trail – if you’re willing to take your time, you can hike it.
My favorite part of the hike was discovering all of the geological elements along the way. It seemed like we were exclaiming over every rock we encountered – they were all so different from one another in terms of size, shape, color, and texture.
While there was information in the brochure about the flora and fauna we might encounter in the park, I would have appreciated more geological information. Even without the background I found it all very interesting!
Spatter Cones and Snow Cone
The turnaround point on our hike is the fifth point of interest in the park materials – the Spatter Cones and Snow Cone. These have been damaged over time because tourists have been scrambling to the top of them since the early 1900s. There are now official paths to help protect them moving forward.
The snow cone has a deep cavity filled with snow, despite the extremely hot summer weather. Both are accessible via paved, wheelchair-friendly trails.
The best viewpoint in the park is on top of the Inferno Cone, which is a giant pile of cinder featuring a .4-mile round trip trail to the summit. Pro tip: leave some space between you and other hikers as you climb the steep trail to the top. The cinder is loose and easily kicked up into the air. I was coughing into my mask and my throat was tight by the time we reached the top – not an exceptional experience!
The views, however, were exceptional – we somehow timed our ascent to align with some breaks in the clouds, which were pretty densely packed in the rest of our visit.
Because the caves were closed, our final major stop was at the parking lot for several trails leading to molds of trees that were caught in the lava flows and the vast wilderness area beyond. It can be very difficult to navigate in the open lava fields, and you need to acquire a permit and have appropriate gear (and sometimes a booked guide) to explore.
We were not that adventurous given the time of day and the heat so we stuck with hiking the 2-mile round trip Tree Mold trail. What I liked about this hike was that it had more and different vegetation than the other pullovers. There was tons of sage brush and a few other small trees and plants along the way.
I have to admit the tree molds themselves were not quite what I thought they would be. There were a couple markers identifying where a tree had stood or fallen over, got trapped in the lava flow, and then dissolved over time, leaving a ‘mold’ behind.
A couple of the molds retained some of the lines from the tree bark and were clearly molds from a tree, but either we didn’t spot most of them or there really weren’t that many to see. The hike itself was nice and easy, and there were only a few people on the trail – we mostly had the place to ourselves.
It would be fun to return and explore the lava tubes/caves and some of the other hikes. If you find yourself in Idaho, I recommend checking out Craters of the Moon. It’s most likely unlike any national park or monument you’ve experienced before!